In the Apple TV+ series, The Big Door Prize, a small town is forever changed when a mysterious machine appears in a general store, promising to reveal each resident’s true life potential! With costume design and storytelling going hand in hand, costume designer Colin Wilkes had take a detailed look at each character, understanding who they are, who they will become, and how the costumes can support them through their journey. I spoke with Colin Wilkes about The Big Door Prize costumes and that very process, the interesting color palettes, the balance between fantasy and realism, and that exquisite blue butterfly gown that Cass wears!
Spencer Williams: I am so excited to welcome costume designer Colin Wilkes. Hey, Colin!
Colin Wilkes: Hi, Spencer. It’s so nice to meet you finally!
Spencer Williams: I have heard so much about you and have been wanting to do this for a while. With that, I’d love to just know a little more about your background. Why did you get into costume design?
Colin Wilkes: I grew up on a ranch in East Texas, and I think my mom really wanted to get me out of the small-town life. So I ended up going to Houston to a performing arts high school, and that’s really where I started diving into costume design. I started illustrating and really developing this love for creating characters. Truly, that’s where it started. I just really followed it. Costume design is a vehicle for storytelling. I’ve really settled into television and film; that’s where my home feels like now.
Spencer Williams: Such a relatable story. Small-town people just trying to get out of the desert.
Colin Wilkes: Yes. Just lured in by big Hollywood signs with stars in our eyes!
Spencer Williams: Exactly. Let’s get to The Big Door Prize. What a fun, interesting show. We have a pretty unique cast of realistic characters, all on different life trajectories. Where did you begin with this project in establishing characters before the introduction of the Morpho machine?
Colin Wilkes: I really had to look at the characters individually, and I think that was, like you said, the most fun part about this because they are all so different. We got to create a formula for how they would engage with the Morpho, their life potential, and where it took them. That was a really fun way to explore each character. For example, we have someone like Principal Pat, who goes right into buying her bike and her awesome custom bedazzled jacket. We saw her change happen a lot more outwardly and then going inwards. Then we have someone like Dusty, he’s in a stasis of not changing too much. You don’t really see a huge arc for him in his costume. So with that being said, all of the characters evolve in different ways at different times.
Spencer Williams: That’s so interesting. When you think about big films, everyone’s going through their character arcs at the same time, but in this episodic series, everyone’s going through their journey at different paces, which I feel could be complicated as a costume designer.
Colin Wilkes: Yeah, definitely. You have to really pay attention to each character equally. We had put so much love into even just our background actors and giving them potential. They’re moving in and out of frame at different points in our stories, but they still have a life that we really wanted to put on camera. That helped create that texture, variance, and believability in all of the characters.
Spencer Williams: When the Morpho Machine mysteriously appears, these characters come to understand their potential, and for some, it affects the way they present themselves. There becomes an element of fantasy. It sounds simple enough, but actually, I imagine it was quite a challenge. How did you then transform the characters?
Colin Wilkes: I believe that the adjacent comedy aspect of the show with the fantasy really enabled us to take more creative liberties. You get someone like Giorgio, as you see, he’s in all of these custom tracksuits; he has fully embodied his life potential, right? We got to riff off of the comedic aspects of it as opposed to really leaning into the fantasy because I think the fantasy is actually where we needed to ground it with the realism of not going too far in costume. Yes, there are moments for costume gags, but we wanted to create some relatability for these characters, at least because it is important that we believe where they’re going. It was fun with each of these characters to see what their thing was.
Spencer Williams: While watching this series, it dawned on me that it felt very timeless. You can’t really put a finger on any one location or period. Was that intentional?
Colin Wilkes: Yes, great point. I think that that also plays into the fantasy you were talking about. We need to be able to feel like this could happen at any time in any place. Also, coming out of Covid, you’re in this blur-like time warp. What do we do? Who am I after this big life event? Where do I go from here? A lot of people changed the course of the way that they worked and showed up, and I think that, in that case, it was really interesting to work on the costumes with that perspective in mind, and it was important to keep it timeless.
Spencer Williams: I love it. I was really impressed by your use of color, in particular the blues, purples, and reds. How did color play a role in this project?
Colin Wilkes: Well, we wanted to use it sparingly, especially with the color blue and our certain tone blue. We were selective. Of course, you can’t shy away from denim, but we were selective in using that kind of “Morpho blue,” as we called it, because it would really pop when we used it. In terms of the other colors, I wanted to create a really tight map of what the characters wore. For instance, Mr. Johnson has a palette of these kinds of pistachios and warm yellows calling back to the sixties and fifties.
Spencer Williams: I want to spend some time talking about a few characters. We have to start with good ole Dusty. He really has a hard time understanding his potential, and that really kind of has him make some interesting choices with his clothing. How did you convey this through his costumes? I love the shot of him on the scooter. It makes me laugh every time.
Colin Wilkes: Hilarious. I mean, Chris just is inherently so funny and can take something and really run with it in a way that I think is wonderful. But I really wanted to encapsulate the kind of usefulness that Dusty has, which is, uh, pretty symptomatic of his relationship with Cass with the codependency. He had really depended on her in a lot of ways. She probably bought him this corduroy jacket because she wanted him to look a little bit more official. Then there’s the element of him wearing these color-blocked shirts, which I really thought were nice with his sneakers that feel really juvenile, along with these friendship bracelets he probably got from some of his students.
I think that there were moments where we definitely injected Cass’s touch. So at dinner, she probably bought him a sweater that he’s wearing in episode two, but then as you see on the lower left-hand slide, there is that moment where he is a little spiraling, and he is like, what has this machine done? It’s upended this small town. Dusty has kind of given up a little bit, so you see him throughout the season just wearing the windbreaker and kind of just phoning it and going to school. And that basketball jersey! The basketball jersey was so fun because they don’t make them like that anymore. That was his basketball jersey from when he played for the team. We really wanted to make him look like he’s had this stuff since the 2000s or 90s.
Spencer Williams: So relatable. Such a typical teacher dad. He actually reminds me of my own dad in ways that speaks to the genius of your costumes.
Colin Wilkes: We wanted to find all of the Dustys and all of the dads!
Spencer Williams: This goes out to all the dads! Cass comes to find out her potential is royalty which I was excited about from the becoming. I imagine this must have been a character you were excited about exploring through costume.
Colin Wilkes: Absolutely. I am such a sucker for a woman finding herself and the showcasing of a woman really finding herself and her identity. That’s something really interesting that evolves through the season with Cass. We steer in these more punchy colors like the red dress or the shirt that she wears to the game. We used the oversized wool and heavier textures toward the beginning before she got her card. But as the story plays out, she really goes into patterns, textures, and those vibrant colors as we get more into her life potential.
Spencer Williams: So brilliant. And I am so excited that we waited to do our interview because I got to see Cass in this incredible blue gown which is noted in the show as a “beautiful work of art.” We have to talk about this look worthy of The Met Gala.
Colin Wilkes: I know. It was so funny. You know, it was hard too, because she made it look so stunning. It was difficult because we needed to make it look like it was small-town couture, which was…how do you do that? *laughs* But there is an element of fantasy there. Yes, it’s beautiful, but there is something so weird and off about it too!
Spencer Williams: Trina is another character who I love. She is also going through some pretty difficult times. While I can’t relate to her specific situation, I still feel like she is such a relatable character, and part of that characterization is in part from the costumes. Talk to me about Trina.
Colin Wilkes: Trina was someone that is so complicated, and I think what’s so wonderful about this show is there’s a real lack of external, infiltrating forces that kids have to deal with now. The kids in our show are having these really emotional conversations that are very evolved and, I think, really wonderful. Their performances are incredible, and they’re really kind of exploring this internal world.
We meet Trina when she’s been grieving the loss of a partner, so there is a little bit of wanting to hide in her clothes and layering it all up so that she can disappear. Her jackets are very armor-like. As we went on, I really wanted to explore how it would look if she, being in a new relationship, were to get in touch with her femininity and womanhood. What would that would look like for Trina? I think you’ll notice that a little bit as we go on. As she starts to shed some of these layers, the silhouette starts to change. This is an indicator of where she’s going and evolving.
Spencer Williams: I thought it was interesting that you were able to pivot from these hyper-fantasy looks, then there were moments where you had to step back from the fantasy and get really into the realism of it all.
Colin Wilkes: Exactly! Because there are still people that are dealing with the same issues we do. I think that we just had to keep going back to that too.
Spencer Williams: Beautifully said. There is also a lot of fun, whacky costume moments. For example, I find every scene at Gorgio’s to be quite brilliant. Also, I realized there are a lot of costumes. What was it like building out these big scenes, and how important was your collaboration with your crew?
Colin Wilkes: The collaboration with the crew in terms of my department is huge. I always really value opinions, and one thing that I really appreciate about this show is we have such creative freedom that is so special and unique. So riffing off of ideas is something that happens really organically, and there’s a lot of laughter that happens when we’re in these meetings coming up with these ideas. It just gets bigger and bigger! What if it was like this? My costume meetings are super fun and funny, and I like to come to the table with lots of different ideas. We really chisel it out to the point where we have these moments of fun costume gags. When I first read the script, Giorgio’s was explained as a Dave & Buster’s f***ed an Olive garden.
Spencer Williams: My two favorite things.
Colin Wilkes: Right? Oh my gosh, I need those breadsticks forever. There was something so fun in creating that visual, and that’s why the writers are so great. Everyone that puts it on the page, they create so much content and so much inspiration!
Spencer Williams: It couldn’t be possible without the writers! I’m so envious. I would definitely go to this restaurant. It’s not, I actually Googled it to see if it was a real place when it started. I didn’t find anything. Do I need to look harder?
Colin Wilkes: I feel like there are Giorgio’s. I was just reading something the other day that said Giorgio’s in New York reopened.
Spencer Williams: Well, there’s a Giorgio’s, but I don’t know if there’s one where I could ride a boat with a giant pasta on top.
Colin Wilkes: Come on, Universal Studios! I mean, how fun would that be? The fact that this place could hold arcade games going on in the background while also hosting a wedding is just hilarious. Those big set pieces were just really fun to create the world for.
Spencer Williams: Oh, it’s brilliant. So then, what was your collaboration like with the cast? Because you have all these individual stories, I imagine you must have had some sort of personal connection with each of these actors to really understand what they’re trying to portray their own character.
Colin Wilkes: Yes! Each character is so deeply personal, the actors came up with really good ideas that were pretty developed by the time we had our fittings, which of course, was like two weeks before we went to camera for all of these characters. But the detail is really what shows up. It was just really organic in the fitting rooms because there’s always that aha moment when you’re figuring out a character for the first time. Whether you found the right colors or a fit feeling, you’re just like… this is her! She showed up, she’s appeared. It’s really fun to have those moments with each of the actors, and they’re all really wonderful and collaborative.
Spencer Williams: What an incredible feeling! We are at the end, but I have to ask you, what did this project mean to you?
Colin Wilkes: Um… everything! Everyone showed up in a way that they were all equally invested. We all loved this project so much, and it was such a healthy, fun environment. Life is so short, and we work so much. It really revived my love of the craft and collaboration. It takes every person on set to get it from the page to the screen.
Spencer Williams: Colin, I am SO happy for you. I just met you, but I feel proud of you, and just love the work you and your team accomplished on this show. Congratulations!
Colin Wilkes: Thanks so much, and I hope we get to meet up one day soon.
Spencer Williams: Yes! Thank you for taking the time!